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Safe Travels Need a Guiding Light

June 19, 2010


The trials and tribulations of finding an apartment in New York City have consumed my life for the past few days, involving phone calls, e-mails, and lots of leg work; unfortunately my efforts have yet to pay off, but one fortuitous side effect of the experience has been that I have quickly learned the basics of navigating the NYC subway system.  I learned, for example, that there are certain unspoken rules to be followed, such as:

Always stand immediately in front of the train doors before they open so that you can move into the train before anyone else even attempts to get off.

Keep an eye out for MTA announcements posted in obscure or unnoticeable areas notifying you that the train you are about to get on is not actually the letter or number it claims to be, even though all other visible signage says otherwise.


Do not, under any circumstances, break stride or stop when exiting a station platform during rush hour.  You will immediately regret your decision.

I know I now feel like a more complete human being for learning and knowing these rules, don’t you?


Regardless of the complimentary life lessons offered by the New York City subway system (and my propensity for wanting to refer to it as “the T”), I believe the system appears so complex because it lacks a simple compatibility with the human experience — a problem that could potentially be addressed with lighting.

Think about it: what comes to mind when you think of a subway system? Trains, loud noises, steel, heat, confusion? Chaos?

Subway systems are certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing of places due to their typically utilitarian nature. I believe, however, most of them lack a certain design feature that would not only make them easier on the eyes, but infinitely more usable: focus.

Focus is a big topic in theatrical lighting.  Some would say the entire purpose of theatrical lighting is to direct focus.  A lighting designer must direct the audience’s eyes to the important action on stage, or risk losing their attention and interest almost immediately.  This is usually accomplished by varying the intensities of the pools of light on stage — increase the intensity in the area of action, decrease it in the background and all other areas — a simple and effective technique.  The iconic theatrical followspot functions on the same premise, providing a precise, controlled, extra punch of light on the featured performer to make them stand out.

What if subways were thought about in the same way? What if, instead of glazing over every platform, corridor, stairwell, and track with an uncontrolled wash of light, the light was focused on the important areas of the station, highlighting exactly where people need to look and go?  What if the lighting directed travelers’ eyes using intensity or color?  What if the sources were hidden or disguised so as not to divert attention (or cause temporary blindness and/or eye fatigue)? Would such an improvement make subway travel a more pleasant experience? Would it improve safety? Would it attract more travelers?

Boston, and the MBTA, have already taken a big step in this direction.  Pictured above are recently completed improvements to the Arlington Street station on the Green Line, one of several subway stations to undergo a complete overhaul in recent years.  While focus is not necessarily addressed to the degree that I have suggested, these upgrades appear miles ahead of any of the MTA stations I saw during my few days in New York so far.

What makes this example such an improvement?  The human element.  This is an environment that humans can easily interact with. This station is bright, clean, and easily navigable.  The lighting clearly illuminates both the signage as well as the most important part of the station: the track.  It doesn’t work against or assault our sense of sight (at least, not as much as other examples), and it allows travelers to focus more on their trip and less on distractions.  I can’t say the same for some of the New York subway stations.

What do you think?  Any New Yorkers (or other subway riders) out there?  What have your experiences been with the subway?  Do you think improved lighting would be beneficial to the ease and safety of travel?


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